Mark Levinson No.35 D/A processor Page 2

With the C.E.C. TL 1 transport driving it through the Kimber AGDL coaxial digital link, the No.35 quickly set a new standard for digital playback in my reference system. Its midrange was clear and immediate, yet in no way forward or pushy in the way that digital playback can sometimes be. Its top end was subtle; perhaps just a bit soft at times (a characteristic which I would later find to be largely attributable to the C.E.C. transport), but never lacking in detail. Its bass was full, deep, and detailed. Its soundstage was lively and revealing in both width and depth. And its dynamic range was first-rate.

A Decade of Excellence, a striking sampler CD from Harmonia Mundi (HMU 10), gave the No.35 one if its best early workouts, generating positive impressions right off the bat. With the female chorus on band 4, an excerpt from The Anonymous 4's best-selling An English Ladymass, the reproduction had a superb sense of space with a big, open, generous sound. The top end was translucent, with a trace of brightness which further listening revealed was not coming from the No.35. The midrange was uncolored, with compelling depth. The lute on band 5, the prelude from Lord Herbert of Cherbury's Lute Book, had just the right degree of warmth to make it interesting and real, with no lack of upper-end air or detail. On Pelham Humphrey's Verse Anthems (band 6) the voices were again heard in a real space with convincing dimensionality. There was a striking but not overdone contrast to the sound—a sensation of blackness between the notes, to use an optical analogy—separating it from the grayness typical of ordinary digital reproduction. On the excerpt from a Prokofiev piano sonata (band 17) there was a fine sense of drive and power totally lacking in muddiness or obscuration.

The uncommon clarity of the No.35 was addictive. Indeed, the overwhelming impression on all of these selections was one of an easy, uncongested, uncluttered sound, without grunge, grain, or digital artifacts. On the choral selections, in particular, there was an ideal balance between the chorus as a whole and its individual voices. While I could never quite make out the latter as specific individuals, I could make them out as much as I would ever want to—the blend was never an undifferentiated hum, but a collection of individual, if not individualizable, voices. Which is the way a real choir sounds.

The favorable impressions continued on a wide range of good recordings. There was an involving sense of depth, detail, and warmth on Bernstein's "Make Our Garden Grow," from Testament (Reference Recordings RR-49CD). The sound was coherent, grainless, and only slightly congested on the final climactic peak—the latter appearing to be an inherent quality of the recording rather than of the No.35. On Mickey Hart's Planet Drum (Ryko RCD-10206), despite some bloat and front-to-back foreshortening inherent in the recording, there was a deep, detailed low bass (though this recording still needs a subwoofer to truly bring it to life) and, overall, a dynamic, clear, punchy sound. And as the final cut on the Chieftains' An Irish Evening (BMG 09026-60916-2) ran the gamut of everything from traditional Irish melodies to English folk (with The Who's Roger Daltrey) to country (with Nanci Griffith), the No.35 kept up the pace. As sound overlaid sound, everything remained pristinely detailed but not in any way "hi-fi" or etched in quality, despite the recording's tendency to brightness. The refusal of the No.35 to be in-your-face, and its affirmation of a neutral perspective, helped considerably in keeping its sound natural and unforced.

Nothing put the No.35 wrong except genuinely bad program material. It was inherently neither warm nor analytic, but detailed and warm where called for by the program material. Voices had lively, realistic textures; what grain they displayed was the natural buzz inherent in live speech and song, not electronic haze or etching. Depth and soundstaging were superb, and in all of the other things that matter—dynamics, openness, air, transparency, balance, lack of congestion or hardness—I had a hard time pinning down specific faults.

Except perhaps one. As good as the No.35 sounded driven by the C.E.C. TL 1, it sounded even better with Levinson's own No.31 transport—a fault only insofar as it adds a few thousand to the price of admission! If anything, the Levinson transport is even more tightly detailed than the C.E.C., the latter's sweetness and relative softness standing out against the No.31's crisper, more incisive sound. The latter can sound slightly too cool on some material, particularly where the overall ensemble blend is more important to the musical message than the transient attack. But never to the point of damage to the overall musicality; the added definition of the Levinson pair, to the contrary, seemed to bring out the best in good recordings.

On Mokave, Volume 2 (AudioQuest AQ-CD1007), the No.31/No.35 combination had the faster sound, with more dynamic shading and inner clarity, than the No.35/C.E.C. The latter pairing was just slightly too sweet here, though extremely clean and almost "analog" in its relaxed, easy character. The Levinson transport, while sacrificing a bit of sweetness, doesn't give away much; overall, it simply sounded more real with the No.35. Everything was there with the C.E.C.; it just did not sound as fast or as extended at the top end or as tight and well-defined at the bottom. While taking nothing away from the less expensive and still excellent C.E.C.—which, after all, was the transport used to generate my almost embarrassingly positive initial observations—the No.31 transport simply ratcheted the performance of the No.35 to an even higher level.

These observations were made with the Kimber electrical data link (S/PDIF) between transport and processor. Since both the C.E.C. and the No.31 transports have ST optical outputs, a comparison of these two transports driving the No.35 processor would be incomplete without seeing how they compared with the optical link. Using an AudioQuest ST link, I was surprised to find that I preferred the Kimber with both transports; it resulted in more—but not excessive—detailing, and a "blacker" background. The differences were not what I would call shattering, but they were significant, and in favor of the Kimber.

And what of other transports?
To gauge the No.35's performance with more modestly priced CD-spinners, I tried it with both the Meridian 200 and the Pioneer CD-65—the latter a CD player but used here from its digital output. (The Kimber AGDL interconnect was used with both of these units, as they only provide for standard coaxial and the more common EIAJ optical output, the latter generally held in low regard by critical listeners.)

The Meridian performed well, though with a subtle but noticeable grain and a more subdued dynamic range than the No.31. I would have to describe the Meridian as good yet somehow polite. The Levinson No.31 seemed to know exactly where it wanted to go, and was determined to take the listener along. The Meridian coaxed the listener in the same direction, firmly but not urgently.

The Pioneer CD-65 was a familiar companion. Finding myself without a "high-end" transport on hand early in my No.35 listening, my good experience in using the Pioneer drive other processors led me to press it into service driving the Levinson. I was therefore pleasantly surprised, though not shocked, to find that this combination sounded as good as it did. After spending time with both the C.E.C. TL 1 and the Levinson No.31 driving the No.35, however, returning to the Pioneer-as-transport revealed the awful truth that the Pioneer—at a fraction of the cost—was not quite in the same league as either of them. But it continued to perform surprisingly well.

The Pioneer/Levinson transport/processor combination may sound ridiculous, but it sure didn't sound ridiculous. It was sweet yet detailed, with smooth, grain-free textures and a deep, reasonably well-defined low end. It did, in fact, actually appear to go deeper than the No.31/No.35 combination on some program material, though it in no way matched the definition of the tandem Levinsons. The CD-65/No.35 sounded rather more loose than the latter; a bit lazier, particularly in the midbass. But I didn't notice anything missing until I compared it closely and directly with the more hair-trigger–tight and detailed sound of the all-Levinson setup. The latter simply sounded more real and alive. Nevertheless, my experience with the CD-65/No.35 combo left me optimistic that, at least as a temporary expedient, using the No.35 with a CD player having a decent transport mechanism and digital output could be sonically satisfying. The difference in performance between the CD-65/No.35 and the No.31/No.35 was nowhere near as dramatic as the difference in price.

But enough of transports. The important thing is that the No.35 will perform well with a variety of them, though its sibling, the Levinson No.31, appears to be an optimum match.

Up against the No.30
Another question raises its head: How does the new No.35 compare with its slightly senior, somewhat more sophisticated, and much more expensive older brother, the No.30? The latter has not lacked for well-earned accolades extolling its superb performance but in no way restrained by its wallet-numbing, precedent-bursting price and sheer physical presence. Not that the No.35 is exactly shy and retiring in appearance; but the latter's smaller size and single-chassis construction conspire to make it just a bit less awe-inspiring.

Mark Levinson by Harman
1718 W. Mishawaka Road
Elkhart, IN 46517
(888) 691-4171